Preparing the Next Generation of Leaders to Guide Nonprofits
By Jodi DeLibertis and Lydia Watts, Esq.

Lydia Watts (left), Jodi DeLibertis
Many of the baby boomers who currently lead nonprofits are facing retirement, yet there is general agreement that sufficient leadership training or succession planning for new leaders has not been achieved.

Following this discussion we have been asking ourselves, “How are Gen Xers looking at established leadership positions? Is there something about nonprofit leadership that is unattractive to younger professionals?” We also ask, “How do leaders of the baby boom generation view their younger colleagues, their leadership potential, and their commitment to the work?”

(We define early Gen Xers as those born between 1964 and 1976, and late Gen Xers as those born between 1977 and 1982. Gen Yers are those born 1983 or later. Baby Boomers are the generation born between 1946 and 1964. See “Emerging Leaders Research Survey Summary Report,” Center for Creative Leadership, 2003.)

We have examined how cultural differences between Gen Xers and Boomers affect their relationships at work and how those differences are rooted in differing life experiences. Perhaps the reason Gen Xers are not seen as the natural heirs to nonprofit leadership positions is due to the perceptions Boomers have about their younger colleagues. These perceptions may impact the opportunities for Gen Xers to practice leadership and develop leadership skills. Further, we posit that structural and cultural changes within the nonprofit sector, and U.S. society generally, in the last 30 years have a strong influence on cultural differences between generations.

Our informal research has shown us that the generations have surprisingly similar definitions of leadership. At a recent workshop we facilitated, participants from both sides of the generational divide listed the following attributes of leadership: inspiring others, the ability to accept and profit from change, the ability to advance institutional goals, transparency in communication, and bringing diverse constituents together. Boomers and Gen Xers also agree that there is a gap between our ideals of leadership and how it is currently practiced within many nonprofit organizations.

Many of today’s nonprofit leaders can trace the roots of their public service to the social change movements of the 1960s. As we listen to our Boomer colleagues tell the stories of their career paths, they often begin with a story about activism, volunteering as part of a social change movement such as the Civil Rights or women’s movements. Because startups tend to be less hierarchical and less formal, many Boomers had informal opportunities to practice leadership.

Gen Xers have entered the work force at a time when the nonprofit sector as a whole has changed dramatically. The maturation of both the sector and organizations can be seen in the “professionalization” of the sector. As organizations become more formalized and more hierarchical, the informal opportunities to practice leadership are reduced.

Greater Good Consulting is conducting a research project to uncover how generational differences impact the perceived leadership deficit. We have developed a number of strategies to help emerging nonprofit leaders establish credibility, make their contributions visible, and negotiate leadership opportunities, and to help established leaders cultivate new leaders.

We feel that these efforts will be most successful if we can talk openly and honestly across the generational divide about our values and expectations about leadership and how they have been shaped by our differing life experiences. Changing perceptions of leadership and how it is practiced is a vital piece of solving the nonprofit leadership deficit.

Here is a sample of some strategies to employ to overcome the generational divide.

For emerging leaders:
  • Let people know of your accomplishments.

  • Arrange beforehand to have a senior colleague defer to you in public situations.

  • Negotiate your job title: it speaks volumes to the outside world.

  • Honor the work of those who went before you. Preface a request for change with recognition of past efforts and accomplishments.

For current leaders:
  • Encourage suggestions for change or new approaches.

  • Identify low-risk or low-stakes leadership opportunities for junior colleagues.

  • Cultivate a learning environment.

Jodi DeLibertis and Lydia Watts, Esq., principals of Greater Good Consulting, provide organizational development and management consulting to nonprofits. Call them at 978-223-2542 or email to